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How to Learn the SQL Syntax

Read about what SQL is, and choose the best way for you among a wide variety of possibilities for learning SQL and remembering its syntax.

What Is SQL?

“SQL” stands for “Structured Query Language,” and as it sounds, it is a language dedicated to querying a relational database. In practice, it is used for creating, designing, and managing a relational database.

People use SQL to:

  • Create sets of tables and rows
  • Modify database tables and index structures
  • Insert, update, and delete data
  • Retrieve information from a database for a variety of uses such as analytics

Relational databases consist of a set of tables containing rows and columns of data. Each column in a table represents a category, e.g. a client name or address, and each row contains a data value for that column.

Table from SQL couse

The SQL standard allows creating procedural extensions, which extends SQL to the functionality of a programming language. An example is PL/SQL, Oracle's procedural language extension to SQL.

Is SQL a Programming Language? >>

Thanks to its universality, SQL serves as a fantastic starting point for learning other computer languages like Java or Python. The fun part is that SQL is very simple and similar to English, so once you have the basics you are good to go.

Do you want to learn more? Check out this episode of our YouTube series "We Learn SQL" on what SQL is. Remember to subscribe to our channel!

Ways to Learn the SQL Syntax

In no particular order, here are a few ways you can learn SQL and its syntax on your own.

1. Reading About SQL

Many new SQL articles are published every day. Reading is useful for beginners and experienced professionals alike, depending on the level of advancement and/or difficulty. SQL-related materials allow you to develop skills, expand knowledge, and get inspired for starting an SQL side project.

19 Top SQL Articles for Beginners Published in 2019 >>

Examples of SQL reading materials include:

  • Books
  • Blog articles
  • Academic publications
  • Case studies
  • Use cases

LearnSQL.com has recently developed a space called the SQL Cookbook. It is a collection of a variety of SQL problems and their solutions. Each article shows a scenario, and you learn how to write SQL queries to achieve a specific result. For example, you might need to change the first letter of each word in your PostgreSQL table to an upper case.

SQL Cookbook feeds your head with ready-made solutions you can use in your projects. It supports standard SQL, PostgreSQL, SQL Server, Oracle, MySQL, and SQLite.

2. Watching Video Tutorials

Watching video tutorials is probably the most common way to learn SQL, because you see someone writing code and/or solving a database problem. Visuals help us remember better, and if you are a visual learner, you will get the most out of them. Videos are also convenient, because there are so many places on the Internet where you can find SQL video tutorials for free.

YouTube Tutorials That Actually Teach You Some SQL >>

Watching videos is usually a pleasant activity. However, like with everything else, there are two sides to a coin. Choose carefully, because some video tutorials can actually discourage you from learning SQL.

Read tutorial reviews and do some research about the tutors. Seek ones who are backed by work experience in SQL or ones who are in academia.

3. Taking an Online SQL Course

At the beginning of my path to learning SQL, my then team manager told me to “learn SQL by doing.” I jump-started my code writing by learning from the SQL Basics interactive course where you simulate querying a real database. I didn’t know much about SQL before I started, but I became more confident with each additional exercise. After completing over 100 exercises and solving as many database-related problems, I could, for example, independently build a simple report with a GROUP BY.

SQL Basics

Learning SQL concepts through hands-on experience will prepare you for writing advanced SQL queries and for certification exams.

4. Learning SQL by Practicing

Regardless of which learning method you choose, be sure to spend time practicing as you learn to solidify your newly acquired knowledge. Practice is key to learning any new skill, and you can practice SQL in one of two ways.

First, you can install a database on your computer and run queries using your data. You can do it at home (using, e.g., PostgreSQL), or you can ask your organization’s IT department to see if they let you play safely with its data. The advantage of the latter is that you get to understand the structure and dependencies of your organization’s data.

The other way to practice syntax is in an online SQL course or an SQL Practice Set. This approach lets you practice much faster, because you don’t have to install additional software or wait for the green light from the IT department. Many online platforms, like LearnSQL.com, provide a certification of completion which can show your commitment to professional learning and development to your next employer.

SQL Practice Set

Take it Easy

No matter which method you select, take it easy! Don’t move on to more advanced queries until you master the basics. Focus on learning simple concepts step by step and on forming strong SQL fundamentals.

Don't worry if you forget things—others forget too! My colleague, who has 10+ years of experience working with databases, still forgets the syntax for the COALESCE() function and confuses the LEAD() and the LAG() functions. In fact, I wouldn’t recommend trying to remember everything off the top of your head. Whenever you need to use more advanced commands, you can always refer to our SQL cheat sheet or other online documentation.

To communicate with your database, you need to use a management tool like SSMS or SQL developer. Tools like these also point out if you have errors in the SQL syntax, through error messages that tell you where the errors are.

You don’t need to know the exact syntax to solve a given problem, but you do need to know where to find the right information.

Have Fun Learning SQL

There are several methods for learning SQL and its syntax, but it is also a matter of individual preference. If you experiment with different methods, you’ll be able to determine which one works for you. You can even combine two or more methods; for example, you can watch some video tutorials and then check your knowledge in an online SQL course. Just remember one thing: people learn much more efficiently when they find the learning process interesting. Make sure to choose a method that is fun for you so that you save tons of time and effort!

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